Bad, bad science

I half heard a report on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, in which some goofy scientist claimed to have demonstrated that there’s no such thing as altruism in human beings. What we interpret as altruism, this erudite chap argued, is actually mistaken selfishness. Unfortunately I didn’t hear how he’d proved this in his lab test, as I had to unselfishly go and do something for my younger son, who’s currently suffering from a stomach bug. Oh, the irony!

After the report, I was left hoping that this so-called experiment will be debunked by Ben Goldacre in his excellent ‘Bad Science’ column in The Guardian.

Why did it annoy me so much? Well, for starters, the basic premise of the research is about on the level of that perennial favourite of 6th form philosophy debates. You know the sort of thing – ‘There’s no such thing as an unselfish act’ ‘What about charity donations?’ ‘That’s still selfish, because you give in order to make yourself feel better’ etc., etc.

Secondly, true altruism demonstrably exists in the real world. People dedicate their lives to finding cures for diseases, freeing political prisoners or eliminating Third World poverty. Before anyone tries to wheel out the you-give-in-order-to-make-yourself-feel-better argument, the real acid test of altruism is a situation in which somebody gives up their life for what they perceive to be the greater good.  How can you selfishly die for a cause?

It seems to me that the problem of trying to test altruism in a laboratory setting is: how can you reproduce the circumstances in which people behave altruistically? You can’t exactly create a mini Chernobyl to melt down in your lab, to see whether firemen will tunnel underneath to stop the contamination getting into the water table even though they know that the radiation will certainly give them cancer. Call me old-fashioned, but I’d say that accusing the real life Russian firemen who did that of mistaken selfishness is bloody insulting.

The fact is that while science is brilliant for certain kinds of enquiries, it’s a bit inadequate for others. I learned this when I was doing my PhD on stand-up comedy, and I read a ton of experimental psychology papers, in which they’d tried to examine the phenomenon of joking by doing lab tests. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they tended to find that if you take people into a cold, sterile lab, inject them with substances, wire them up to electrodes to test their galvanic skin responses, and show them bits of old Laurel & Hardy movies that you’ve hamfistedly edited together yourself, they don’t laugh much. You don’t say?

The problem is that scientific testing means eliminating extraneous variables. The problem is that in something as complex as humour, who’s to say what’s extraneous and what’s not? When I worked as a stand-up comedian, I found that anything from the time the show started to the layout of the room to the amount of alcohol the audience had consumed all made a fundamental difference to how easy it was to get a laugh. And strangely enough, I never thought of a psychology lab as being a particularly conducive place for setting up a comedy club.

The point of the arts is to go into the areas that science struggles with. If you’re wanting to understand the soul of humanity, you’re better off asking an artist than a scientist. Or you could even try a comedian.